Today’s guest post comes to us from Mike, an IT specialist from America’s midwest region. He’s a husband and father of one lovely preschooler and has struggled with OCD for at least 30 years. His biggest fears have focused on assurance of salvation–so if you can relate, you’re going to enjoy his story. Mike was a member of our group coaching family for some time, and is circling back around to share how much he benefited from ERP for religious OCD.
Thank you, Mike, for sharing your success story about ERP for religious OCD!
Hello reader! My name is Mike, and today I wanted to share my story of OCD/Scrupulosity and how my journey took me from a place of desperation without hope to a place of transformation and a life I didn’t think was possible. I believe that through several God-directed circumstances and people (like Jaimie), He would use the catalyst of ERP for religious OCD to bring this transformation. I want to share some of my story in hopes you can relate and know there is hope.
I’ve struggled with OCD without knowing what it was for as long as I can remember. As a young child, I became obsessed with the thought that I had something stuck in my throat. I was terrified to eat. This would eventually lead to going to one of the major hospital systems in the United States, where they put me under and ran a scope down my throat to rule out something stuck. Sure enough, there was nothing there.
Religious OCD: The Battle Begins
The doctors told my parents that my problem seemed mental health-related and that I might need counseling. I was growing up in a time (the 1980’s-early 90’s) when mental health was viewed very suspiciously by our conservative Christian community. My parents didn’t think therapy aligned with Christianity, so they didn’t seek that help. Fortunately, with the assurance that nothing was stuck in my throat, and by God’s grace, I would start to eat again and overcome my fear of choking. Unfortunately, the relief would be short-lived, and I became obsessed with my salvation and morality in my early teens.
Did I cheat on that test? Did I kill that flower while I was mowing the yard? Did I put the Hallmark card at the store back in the wrong spot? Was I saved? Did I say the “prayer of salvation” correctly? Was I too proud to be saved? What about my sin? These and many more like them would become the themes of my life. Growing up and into early childhood, I tried hard to fix these issues. Rumination, confession, and reassurance-seeking were my primary compulsions. Sometimes these would be highly embarrassing and public. Like when I became convinced it was my fault that some of the flowers at my local big-box store, where I worked in the garden center, had died. I charged myself for them to relieve my guilt. Eventually, I confessed this to the store manager. It was humiliating.
On the Scrupulosity front, I would talk with my parents and numerous Christian leaders in my church about my salvation. No number of salvation prayers or talks would bring about lasting relief. I might feel better for a moment or a few days, but the doubt would come crashing back. In high school, life provided several exciting distractions that helped me cope. I was very successful at a couple of sports in high school and got a girlfriend. Having been home-schooled most of my life, this new attention was exciting and provided a great distraction that helped me from getting too lost in my OCD. It wasn’t until college that everything would finally start to crash.
Desperate Salvation Doubts
Following my parent’s expectations, I went to a small Bible college after high school to pursue a one-year Bible certificate. As you might imagine, for a young college kid obsessed with his salvation, going to a small Bible college for an entire school year, away from his family for the first time, was one ongoing big trigger. My obsession with salvation became laser focused. I would read all the books on salvation I could find and hunt down my professors to talk to them about my salvation, desperate to “solve” this issue once and for all. The harder I tried, the more obsessed I became.
I still have an old Bible from my time at college. On the front cover is a signed confession by one of my professors where I accepted Christ. It reads, “At 11:00 AM on Friday, November 12, 1999 Mike confessed his trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and expressed his belief that the blood of Christ paid for all his sin.” My professor signed it. I wrote this statement in the bible “I put my trust in Jesus Christ today and rest in His promise to save me and that alone even though I keep trying to say to myself I did something wrong or didn’t believe right I trust Christ.”
This wouldn’t bring any long-term relief. I would continue to doubt and obsess about my salvation. I would talk to more professors and try even more to solve this issue. If I could just solve it, life would be great. Fortunately, I have a very driven, achievement-focused personality. This drive to succeed kept me functional. I still passed my classes at Bible college (with good grades) and could outwardly function, but all joy was taken away. I struggled to make good friendships, and my time there was miserable. I was so relieved when graduation came, and I could escape a world where all I could do was obsess and try to compulsively get assurance of my salvation. One of my professors, I think it may have been the one that signed my Bible, relayed to my parents that he could help most people but couldn’t help me.
Searching for the Right Treatment
Despite what I see as a very dark time, I believe God used this time in several ways. First, one of the professors I would talk to about my salvation was the first to detect something else at work. He asked if I did other things obsessively. I realized that, yes, I did. He suggested I might have OCD. Second, God used this time to help me get to such a dark place that I knew I needed more help. After this year at college, I would move back home, attend my local community college, and move back in with my parents. They helped me find a Christian counselor, and I was soon diagnosed with OCD. The counselor referred me to a doctor, where I was prescribed medication. These were some of the first steps in my recovery.
Unfortunately, this counselor, although very well-meaning, was not trained in ERP or how to deal with OCD. He applied a more general CBT therapy where we tried to talk through my fears and solve them. This seemed only to enhance, not remediate, my OCD. I would argue with him about my obsessions, and the sessions became a place for me to continue to obsess and try and seek reassurance. For those of you on this journey, you probably recognize that no amount of reassurance will satisfy OCD. You’ll always want more; you’ll always doubt.
Going Covert with Compulsions
The next few years of my life until graduation from a state school were difficult. Mainly because of my OCD, I would lose the serious girlfriend I had met in high school. Confession and reassurance cycles became too exhausting for her. I became depressed, and my grades suffered for the first time. Previously an “A” student, I barely passed or had to drop classes because I would have otherwise failed. I became involved at the church in my local college town and went down the familiar path of seeking out church leaders for help: different people, but the same results. I couldn’t find relief. It was at this point that my life took a turn. I was exhausted and barely functioning. It was here that my achievement-driven personality started to take back over.
I wanted to be successful. I wanted to get married and be successful in my career. So I stopped. I stopped confessing; I essentially stopped seeking reassurance from people. Instead, I brought it all internally. I started to exhibit the “Pure-O” (mental obsessions and compulsions) form of OCD. My obsessions and compulsions would mostly stay in my head, invisible to those around me. I became very “successful.” I worked to improve my grades and was able to graduate, and then I poured myself into my work. I quickly advanced in my career. I was making friends, and eventually, around age 30, I met my now wife. Like in high school, I found things to distract and excite me, keep me moving, and not be consumed with OCD. I kept my OCD in check from taking too big a hold by telling myself I would solve it later. I had visions of retiring or being in a nursing home where I would re-double my efforts and figure everything out, but for now, I would concentrate as best I could on work and marriage.
This strategy continued to keep me highly functional. I was great at hiding my OCD, but it continued to grow inside. My life was slowly but consistently being sapped of all joy and purpose. The internal obsessions and compulsions grew as the earlier excitements and distractions of marriage and career began to lose their initial excitement. Finally, after the birth of my daughter, I would again hit rock bottom.
Finally Facing the Beast
I had moved into “middle age” and was starting to wrestle with the purpose of my life, and even more, I was terrified I would be a bad father. I wanted to raise my daughter to know and hopefully follow Christ in her life. But how could I do this when I didn’t even know I was truly a Christian? I couldn’t put off solving my problems any longer. I had to re-engage. So, I did what I always did but more covertly. I used Google rather than a pastor for reassurance and answers to my doubts. The Pure-O form of OCD was taking over. I had great trouble concentrating at work and home. I was admittedly Googling and ruminating for reassurance and answers at both places when I should have been working or spending time with family. My mind was continually obsessing, trying to solve and seek reassurance, and looping again. It was like a terrible music album stuck on repeat into perpetuity. On the outside, I might be enjoying a fun event with my family, but on the inside, I was consumed by OCD.
As a quick aside, I want to clarify that I wrestled with real-life (not imagined) sin in my struggle. I was far from perfect. I believe some of this sin was a coping mechanism to deal with my OCD, but it was still sinful. Sometimes in the Scrupulosity community, I see others that are seemingly near-perfect. Their stories are full of false guilt. I just wanted to let you know that I also had real guilt and shame. Real failure and actual sin. This only further muddled the situation for me. In case that is you, know you aren’t alone here either. It’s possible to grapple with sin and OCD. Know also that with OCD, it’s possible, in fact likely, you’ll laser focus on that sin rather than the grace and forgiveness of Jesus.
Finally, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. In what was probably a compulsive way, I dumped it all on my wife. I had told her about my mental health before marriage, but I was so good at holding it in and hiding it that she had no idea the level of my struggle after ten years of marriage. She was deeply concerned. Fortunately, she encouraged me to seek help. This would start a one-year journey to discovering ERP and eventually healing and a new normal I never thought possible.
ERP for Religious OCD
First, I started like I had in the past.
I looked for a Christian counselor and was ready to solve my issues.
I finally landed on an online Christian counseling service and was matched with a counselor. It was sometime during this period that I found Jaimie’s website (score one for Google!). From her site and other sources, I started to learn about newer OCD treatments and ERP. The online counselor I found took a similar approach to my old one. He meant very well, but he didn’t know OCD and how to treat it with ERP. I decided to cancel with him and put all my efforts into Jaimie’s online academy.
Jaimie wasn’t available for 1on1 coaching then, so I started with the academy and her group sessions. I could tell from the website that this was something different. This was someone speaking to my battles and understanding OCD, specifically Scrupulosity. Here I found a community of people I could relate with, dealing with many of my same problems.
I worked through the academy classes and met with Jaimie in one-on-one coaching. She started to suggest that I try ERP for my religious OCD. I learned that ERP was a therapy type unlike any other I had tried before. Instead of seeking reassurance and solving my obsessions, I would rather trigger my fears and learn to sit with the anxiety. It sounded terrifying! After further research, I was convinced to try it. This led to a second problem.
Finding a Therapist to Administer ERP for Religious OCD
I was convinced that I had to have a Christian therapist.
Going to a “secular” therapist never really crossed my mind. How could a secular therapist help me solve a spiritual problem? How would they understand the nuances of salvation and my beliefs? It seemed wrong to even consider.
However, as I started to search for OCD therapists specializing in ERP, I found that there weren’t many, let alone Christian ones, in my area. If I wanted to go to a reputable ERP therapist in my area, it would have to be the secular route. I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue to try and spin my wheels, trying the same things I’d done for the last 30 years, or was I going to try something else?
Out of absolute desperation, I decided I’d give it a go. I got up the courage to call and make an appointment. Unfortunately, the need for ERP is so great, and the resources are so few in my area that I was put on a 4-6 month waiting list. They would call me when it was my turn. It was a relief and discouragement all at once. On the one hand, I got to put off the ERP I dreaded. Maybe I could figure some things out before it started. On the other hand, 4-6 months seems like a long time when you are at rock bottom.
Fortunately, Jaimie stepped in to encourage me to keep going. We were able to schedule some 1on1 coaching. She suggested a book by Ian Osborn called “Can Christianity Cure OCD” and that I give it a read. This book would play a significant role in my healing journey.
In a nutshell, it tells the stories of many heroes of the Christian faith and (although not known at the time) their struggles with what is now known as OCD. This book tells a beautiful story of how people like Martin Luther and John Bunyan faced crippling OCD and overcame it through trust and faith in Christ. It also speaks of the biological and mental side of OCD and why ERP is so effective and essential. Finally, it shares how Christians have a secret weapon whereby they can apply their faith in the practice of ERP. I highly recommend reading it, especially when considering ERP as a Christian. It helped me prep for ERP, and I would experience first-hand how trust in Christ and the “therapy of trust” would help in my journey.
Starting ERP for Religious OCD
Fast forward several months, and I would finally get the call that it was my turn for ERP. I had grown so much through Jaimie’s academy and what I knew of OCD, but I needed ERP to help me get the victory. I was also petrified to begin ERP for religious OCD. I was assigned to a newer therapist in the practice who had just finished schooling to have his own clients. “Oh great, I thought. I’m getting a secular counselor that doesn’t know what they are doing.” I was tempted to back out or wait until the expected therapist became available, but in the next step of collective fear and faith (one of many), I decided to go for it.
I began my journey with ERP for religious OCD. I went for one hour over lunch every week to meet with my therapist, Zach. Zach didn’t profess to be a Christian and, from what I could tell, didn’t have faith in Christ. How could this work? I described my symptoms, and I took an OCD test (called a Y-BOCS score) that measured my severity. I scored on the very highest level of moderate right before severe. Believe it or not, another severity level is called “extreme” after severe. Jaimie had told me that it could be a lot worse and that I was fortunate to be functioning; this comment was starting to resonate.
I had done much online research before I started, so I had a general sense of what to expect. We mapped out my fears and ranked them in severity from least to most. For instance, if your OCD obsession was that you would lose control and stab someone, talking about a knife might be a three on the anxiety of 1 to 10. Holding a knife might get you to level 10. The idea is to trigger your anxiety with your fears but start slowly at first and then build to your biggest trigger. When triggered, you must resist your compulsion(s) and sit with the anxiety until it naturally subsides.
This seemed straightforward, but it was a little more challenging regarding Scrupulosity and my form of obsessions and compulsions. It wasn’t as simple as holding a knife. Being afraid of hell and eternal damnation didn’t seem as straightforward.
Or was it?
Persisting with ERP
It didn’t take too long for me to think of triggers. I could read certain bible verses, read testimonies focused on the mechanics of the salvation experience, and listen to pastors that took a less-than-loving approach to the Bible. Youtube and Google were a treasure trove. 🙂
I also made my own. I created a script where I imagined my ultimate judgment after death. It wasn’t hard to get the anxiety; it was hard not to react to it.
My mission was to trigger the fear and not ruminate or seek reassurance. I was to sit with the anxiety. It was about as pleasant as it sounds. It was scary. It was uncomfortable. My anxiety initially got worse. After writing my script on hell in one of my early sessions, I got so anxious that I sent a panicked email to Jaimie. I was ready to bail and go back to “fixing” things. Jaimie encouraged me to keep going, and so I did. I remembered some of the stories I read online of other ERP sessions. One person was about nine sessions in and ready to quit when suddenly something switched, and the therapy started to work. I hoped it would be true for me.
Week by week, I would practice. I would trigger my obsessions and practice avoiding my compulsions. There were so many doubts during this process. Was this working? Did my therapist know what he was doing? Maybe I was different? Perhaps it wasn’t OCD? For a while, I just got a whole lot more anxious.
But somewhere during this process, things started to take a turn.
The more I faced my fears and didn’t respond to them, the less power they had. During this experience, I would lose the control I felt I had in myself. Here, what was described in Ian Osborn’s book started to take hold. I was losing the sense of control I thought I had through my obsessive and compulsive actions and instead was shifting that control to a growing faith in Christ. I couldn’t handle my fear, anxiety, and failures. Only Christ could. I could hold on to Him when I had nothing to grab onto, and he would prove himself faithful.
Where I Am Today
By the time I finished my ERP for religious OCD (around 4-5 months of weekly visits), my OCD had substantially dropped off. My Y-BOCS scores went from the highest level of moderate to the low end of mild (near subclinical). More important than a number, my life had changed. As I write this, I’m about seven months into my recovery. I’m practicing my faith without being gripped in fear and ruminating all day. I can teach my daughter about Jesus. My marriage is better. I’ve been able to move forward with a promotion at my work as my mind is no longer consumed, and I’m enjoying life.
Sometimes the seemingly little moments strike me as an accurate measure of my success. For example, recently, I was at the zoo with my family. Partway through the zoo, it hit me. I was in the moment, enjoying the animals and my preschooler racing around from exhibit to exhibit. I was thoroughly engrossed and enjoying it. My mind wasn’t on my obsessions. Living life like this wasn’t possible before. I don’t have some future in my mind where I need to solve this problem of salvation. Instead, I’m trusting Christ day by day to come through for me now and when I leave this earth to meet him in heaven.
I don’t want to give the impression that my life is now perfect. The truth is that I still get anxious sometimes. Stress from work, at home, or a trigger sometimes brings back anxiety. The difference is that I rarely respond to that anxiety obsessively and compulsively. In the rarer times, I start down that road; I quickly realize it, put my ERP back into practice, and get back on track. ERP continues to be the primary tool that keeps me on course.
Shortly after my initial recovery, I had an OCD attack on a different theme. It surprised me, but I recognized it and did some brief (but not compulsive) research online on how to apply ERP to that theme. I practiced it, and it was in the rearview mirror shortly after. ERP not only helped me recover, but it kept me recovering.
I don’t know where you are in your journey. Maybe you’re a teen or young adult. Perhaps you’re middle-aged like me or in your senior years and have suffered from OCD for half a century. What I want you to know is what Jaimie once shared with me. You don’t have to continue to suffer as you have; there is victory, and you (yes, YOU) can experience it. It will take work and courage, but it is SO worth it. I hope you’ll consider ERP for your religious OCD. I know it’s scary. But just like an insulin injection for a diabetic or a cast for a broken bone, ERP is a proven therapy to help you overcome your OCD. For nearly 30 years, I tried everything else without success. It wasn’t until meeting Jaimie and learning about ERP that I finally found victory.
In addition to the incredible experience of overcoming OCD, I think it will simultaneously deepen your faith in Christ as it did for me and those in Ian Osborn’s book. If I can help in your journey with ERP for religious OCD, please feel free to comment below this article, and I’ll try to comment back and help in any way I can. When selecting an ERP therapist, I’d encourage you to check the IOCDF website for a therapist in your area. If they are also Christian (bonus!), but if they aren’t, don’t let it stop you from getting the treatment that could change your life.
Thank you so much for reading this. I’m cheering for you and praying for us on this journey. God bless!
Thank you, Mike, for sharing your story about how you’ve been helped so much by ERP for religious OCD! It’s an inspiration to us all, and especially for me and the group members who got to meet you personally during your time in the academy with us. We are all so proud of you–but more than that, we praise the True Physician for the work of healing He’s done in your life. Keep looking up and trusting Him!